Festival In The Shire: On Balance

We recorded the Middle Earth Special Part 2 a day or two after the Festival In The Shire but I’m aware that although we discussed it we didn’t really review it as an event.  From the comments I’ve received on my original post ‘Festival In The Shire – Notes’ I think that this is maybe something that needs tackling.

Firstly I think we should cover the basic questions then we can get into the details.

Was it what we expected?

– Not really.  I’d looked at the website in advance and flicked through an issue of the journal, so I knew roughly who was supposed to be there and the basic structure of the event, but mostly my expectations were shaped by the name and by previous events I’ve been to.  This had an altogether different feel, was much smaller scale and seemed more suited to the literary and artistic admirers rather than the fan-boys and girls.

Did we enjoy it?

– Yes.  And no.  Mixed feelings really.  There were elements that really engaged us and gave us a lot of pleasure.  Other bits didn’t work so well and felt disappointing.  Critical to any event is the atmosphere, the buzz.  This was palpable in the conference – the part of the show I least expected to find it – but a bit lacking elsewhere.  More details on what worked well and what didn’t when we get into the details later.

Was it worth the price of admission?

– Wow.  Well sorry but that’s another one that falls into both camps.  So much depends on what you want out of an event.  After the final presentation I spoke to one girl, Koleena (think that’s how she spelled it, apologies if not) who had come over from the USA specifically for the Festival.  When I asked her this question she was really positive.  Thoroughly enjoyed it and thought her money was well spent.  Others such as Lynne and Catherine felt the entertainment and other content didn’t warrant the money they’d spent out.

Here’s how I see it breaking down.  Conference goers got their money’s worth.  No question.  Expo goers got some good stuff, but needed broad tastes to get full value.  Some did, some didn’t.  People who paid for just the Festival element I think were let down for content and would be unlikely to return unless things are seriously ramped up for next year.

Would we go again next year?

– Yes, I think we would.  The bits that worked, worked really well and from the conversation I had with the organiser, he knows what areas need more focus for next year.

Getting more into the nitty gritty then, what worked, what made it a success?

– The mixture worked.  A really wide spectrum of people attended that you would never normall put in the same room together, you just wouldn’t expect it, but they were all connected by their love of Tolkien’s work and I think that was great.  It wasn’t as segregated as I thought it would be either.  Conference speakers made fascinating presentations in both the expo and the festival, and the artist Rodney Matthews made himself available to everyone in the public space, much to the surprise and delight of many.

– The conference was a huge success, enabling the scholars to present their new papers and share their thoughts, questions and ideas.  It also provided a platform for up and comers in the scholarly field to step up and show their stuff.  Rather wonderfully, one of the the speakers commented that the non-scholars produced some of the most interesting questions and sent discussions off onto paths that may otherwise have been missed.

– The Live Action Role Play was hella-fun.  It provided the best entertainment for the children in attendance (most of whom hadn’t read the books, but been taken along by their Tolkien loving parents) and some great moments of levity.  Their Battle of Pelennor Fields (in miniature) was a real highlight.  They have indicated that they probably won’t be able to return next year, so I really hope something like it is brought in to keep that sense of fun and interactivity.

– I didn’t catch much of it because we had to get Summer to bed, but I heard good reports all round about the music, particularly the band Brocc (though the french jazz guys were pretty cool too.)

– The gallery was nice.  Atmospheric, interesting artifacts and gorgeous artwork.  The only way it could have been better is to have some kind of guide to discuss each piece and give a bit of background if people wanted it.

What didn’t work so well?

– [a sucking of teeth] It’s hard to pin these things down.  I think that for a three day event there probably wasn’t enough things to actually do.  There were a lot of presentations and performances from a lot of different angles but not much in terms of things people could actively get involved with.  It was largely a spectator event and I think that impacted a lot on the atmosphere, which was supposed to one of celebration and the joy of fandom.  It’s a toughy.

Key to that atmosphere and linked particularly to the festival element,  it could really have done with being more family friendly.  Even if the focus is not so much village festival as book festival, people do have families and those families need entertaining.  The more interactive and the more varied the experience the better (The Live Action Role-Players, whilst great, either needed to be a larger group or for there to be several groups to have a greater impact).

There was a cancellation, the musician Rick Wakeman, which was a huge shame.

So your overall impression?

The intent was good and some of the content was very good, but personally my overall feeling was one of slight disappointment.  I think that it definitely deserves another go next year but some serious thought needs to go into how it can develop to produce the best experience for the paying public whichever ticket type they choose.

What would you like to see next year?

Just more, I guess.  More spectacle, more things for people to get involved with, more stalls, more variety, (better food).

I think the more the different strands can be cross-pollinated the better, so perhaps ticket holders could get a free taster of the next level up (festival goers get to see the expo event of their choice, expo-goers get to see the conference paper of their choice) which after all may then encourage them to go for the next level the following year.  As press we got access to every level, and our experience was definitely better for seeing all facets of the event.

Ultimately if it’s to stay the same scale I think it needs to be in a smaller venue and perhaps be held over two days rather than three.  If it can grow into it’s potential… oh boy I’ll be smiling.

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  1. Troy /

    Hi Dion,

    a fair and balanced reveiw I think. It certainly matches my experience of the event, except I was far too busy to attend the lectures, sounds like I really missed out!

    Just to set the larp contribution in context…
    We were all volunteers, paid all our own expenses and provided all the equipment free.
    We ran activities throughout the three days, attempting to be flexible to the arrival and interest of attendees, for approximately six hours each day.

    Unfortunately larpers rapidly come to regard their weekends as precious and volunteering for events like this is not particularly attractive. The fact that the event was advertised on a national level forum and only attracted six volunteers is an indication of how hard it is to get volunteers for these events.

    Two faction camps would be ideal, but would need a set of Orc kit and an Orc tent. Not cheap, particularly as volunteers.

    Getting either a bigger group or providing more props would require some expenses to be paid, even if it was only petrol/transport costs.

    I can’t tell you how delighted we have been to hear such helpful comments. I would appreciate you letting mark faith know however, as apparently some people did not appreciate our efforts.

    We would be delighted to return next year, with more time to prepare we can finish off ent and troll costumes we have, as well as persuading more friends to come down. But without transport costs being covered it seems unlikely that we will be able to afford to return.



  2. Patrick /

    Hi Dion,

    I agree with Troy – it’s a very fair and constructive review you’ve written.

    Firstly, getting there from Aber was a bit of a problem. Me and my friends had initially bought the private bus tickets to go there on Thurs and back on Mon. We ended up stranded for about 2 hours (no one in Aber had any idea about this festival!) and had to get the regular bus to the village. The organisers very kindly gave us our money back from the bus tickets once we arrived, so I think those arrangements just needed more clarification.

    As we had expo tickets, we felt as though we got our money’s worth, especially as we ‘commandeered’ Mark Faith to show us round the art exhibition and Rene Van Rosenberg talked us through the various items he’d collected, complete with interesting stories! For expo ticket holders, I thought the event running was well set up. Some of the talks were repeated on different days so we felt like we had a lot of freedom to go to what we wanted. We thought the conference might have been a bit too dry, but from what I’ve heard it sounded enthralling(!) and all the speakers were very enthusiastic and approachable. I’d consider upgrading next year.

    I did feel sorry for general ticket holders: there didn’t seem to be half as much for them to do, besides the LARPing (didn’t have time to join in but certainly looked fun!). There were some gems in the lineup though (Brocc and the Harriet Earis/Ian Wynn Rowlands duet) I’d say it definitely wasn’t lacking in terms of the quality of entertainment on display, I think it’s as you said – a bit more variety is needed. The main music stage seemed a little neglected, given it took up half the arena and the tables were pretty empty for most of the day. If they keep the venue for next year, I think there’s potential to fill that side of the hall with more.

    For all the logistical issues, I thoroughly enjoyed the weekend: The talks were excellent and there was always an enthusiastic and friendly vibe about the place. It just felt like a little community in a big venue.

    I’m looking forward to hearing what ideas they’re thinking of next year and I’m glad they feel encouraged enough to put it on again!

    Here’s hoping =)


  3. Colly /

    That is a well balanced piece showing the faults as well as the things that made people happy. As I said on the other Festival post it does seem that there was an attempt to do too much at once. The Birmingham Middle-earth Weekends combine some academic talks, walks, and dramatisations in a village fete setting. But that has grown over 10 years.

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